What you need to do

On 23 March 2020, Prime Minster Boris Johnson told those of us living in the UK that we must stay at home in order to protect the NHS and to save lives in light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Exceptions are permissible to shop for food and medicine, to exercise once a day, due to a medical need or to help a vulnerable person and finally for unavoidable travel to work. 

As the second week of COVID-19 lockdown in the UK progresses, Alice Strang, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, reflects on the government’s ‘what you need to do’ guidelines through works in the collection.

Originally made for his pharmacy restaurant in London, Damien Hirst’s The Pharmacist’s Creed 1997-98 now represents one of the few places where we are allowed to go.

His fascination with the packaging and display of pharmaceutical products, as well as with the role medicine plays in contemporary society, has been realised in works from screenprints to a room-sized installation.

The Pharmacist’s Creed title also speaks of the ethics of this ancient profession, now playing a vital role in fighting COVID-19.

Walter Richard Sickert The Rural Dean About 1932

Running, walking and cycling are cited amongst those safe options for our once daily outdoor exercise, to be carried out alone or with members of our household.

Walter Sickert’s The Rural Dean of c.1932 shows him with his third wife, the artist Thérèse Lessore. They are seen striding along a beachside promenade.

Whilst they are neither in step nor in contact with each other – although not maintaining the two metre ‘social distance’ now required between people who don’t live together - they are in deep conversation. Similar couples are now a familiar sight on our streets.

Charles McCall William McCall Dated 1935 © Estate of Charles McCall. All Rights Reserved 2017/ Bridgeman Images

Those supporting the vulnerable, including all over-70s who have been advised to self-isolate for up to sixteen weeks, may be cheered by Charles McCall’s 1935 portrait of his father.

William McCall is affectionately rendered, observed reading a book held in one hand and with a pipe in the other; a bottle of beer and modest snack are on a table to his side. May those we are caring for be as contented at home as he appears to be.

Carol Rhodes Service Station 1998 © Estate of the Artist

Now that travelling is only permissible for work purposes when you cannot work from home, roads, motorways and car parks are virtually deserted. Carol Rhodes’ Service Station of 1998 seems to have predicted the current status quo. Seem from an aerial viewpoint suggestive of surveillance, this familiar yet commonly disregarded scene would normally be bustling with activity. A place where ordinarily a journey would be paused, to allow momentary freedom from the confines of a vehicle, is instead eerily stilled and unpeopled.

We can all play our part in beating Coronavirus COVID-19. Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. For UK government information about Coronavirus COVID-19 see https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus

By Alice Strang, Senior Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, National Galleries of Scotland, 2 April 2020